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The Complaining Gap

·814 words·4 mins
Communication Relationships

Growing up, I wasn’t allowed to complain. This was because there were a couple of difficult people already in my family once I was born, and a lot of joint decisions to be made. When it came to what to do for family outings or the choice of what to have for dinner, there were really only ever a few opinions that truly mattered in my house (my mother and one of my sisters). The rest of us just really went along.

As a kid, I did so many activities I wasn’t in the mood for and ate so many meals I despised without complaining that I grew up thinking this was normal. Not only that, but I often felt pressured by my mother to not only tolerate things I didn’t like but to actively praise them. (Say, to point out my favorite part of a movie I despised and had been dragged to.)

It wasn’t that I was incapable of complaining. I was — and I did complain. But only rarely. And usually when things had gone terribly wrong.

I wailed to beat the band when I broke my leg in third grade after being knocked with a hockey bag by a passerby as I tried to walk down the bleachers to go ice skating. Tellingly, my parents were so used to my picky sister (who is also a hypochondriac) that they assumed at first when I told them my leg hurt and that something was wrong that I was exaggerating, that I’d simply pulled a muscle and was “being dramatic.” The pediatric orthopedist later lectured them for trying to make me walk on it. “You could have damaged her for life.” I had broken my leg in two places.

I historically wait until things get really bad and I’ve exhausted all my options to deal with the situation before I complain. It physically hurts me to complain.

I’m not saying any of this is healthy by the way — it’s just part of who I am. And something… until perhaps a decade or so ago, I took for granted. That I didn’t really think about in terms of other people and what their “normal” is.

I Married Someone Who Complained All the Time

Interestingly, as luck would have it, I later went on to marry someone who complained all the time. He had a very low threshold for it. Was terrible tolerating any sort of inconvenience, however slight. Generally impatient, easily frustrated, low pain tolerance, particular.

At the time, I took all of his complaints very much to heart. Especially when they were about me.

I basically calibrated his level of distress to the level I needed to complain. And it hurt, that I was causing this much discomfort. I felt very bad about myself.

It’s funny looking back, now that I have time and emotional distance from the situation, after we’ve parted ways and gone on to lives that suit us both better. It’s so obvious in hindsight — in his relationship with his parents, in the way he lived his life before I ever showed up — that we were asymmetrical this way. It’s so painfully clear that we had a complaining gap between us. Not a bad thing, mind you. Not necessarily.

What was unfortunate is that we didn’t realize it.

It wasn’t what ultimately ended the relationship, mind you. We weren’t compatible in a lot of crucial ways that weren’t going to change.

But I do think confusing my threshold for complaining with his caused a lot of confusion and unnecessary pain.

The Complaining Gap

It’s something I’ve taken into the relationships I’ve had since then, including one that knocked me off my feet and resulted in my doing the unthinkable — getting married again (I never thought I’d get married, and hilariously enough I’ve done it twice): People have different thresholds for complaining, and if yours is very high, you must be careful not to assume that other people are the same way, particularly people that you care deeply about.

Some people complain easily. Heck, some people even enjoy complaining and do so recreationally!

What’s important is to recognize that when it happens and not take it so personally if their complaints happen to be about you.

And if you’re on the other side of things, if you’re a person who complains more who is involved with someone who doesn’t like to complain and does so infrequently, you’d be better served by paying close attention to their infrequent complaints rather than brushing them aside as just something that people do and not a big deal.


For more reframes and tools to maintain healthy relationships of all kinds, please see  Dealing with Difficult Metamours, a guide to troubleshooting challenging polyamorous dynamics as well as guidance on how to not create them in the first place.


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